Daniella Levine Cava was elected Miami-Dade mayor on Tuesday, the first woman to win the office and the victor in a campaign that upended the power of demographics in favor of partisan loyalty in a county where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans.
She’s the first candidate without Hispanic roots to win a county mayoral race since the early 1990s and the first Democrat since 2000. In two weeks, she replaces the current term-limited mayor, Carlos Gimenez, who has held the post for nine years.
The county commissioner from South Miami-Dade positioned herself as her party’s choice in the officially non-partisan contest against fellow commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr., a Cuban-American Republican who embraced President Donald Trump.
Her victory caps a six-year effort by Democrats to use their registration advantages in Miami-Dade to flip non-partisan county posts, a strategy that began when Levine Cava unseated a Republican commissioner in 2014.
Levine Cava led Bovo by a substantial margin after more than 1 million early votes and mail ballots submitted before Election Day were counted, a separation between the candidates that held steady through the night as precincts reported results.
Levine Cava declared victory in a speech to supporters before 9 p.m., after more than two-thirds of precincts had reported. Bovo conceded in a short speech shortly afterward.
“Tonight with humility and gratitude I am honored to stand before you as the first female mayor of Miami-Dade County,” she said. “Miami-Dade’s glass ceiling has been shattered.”
A DEMOCRAT FOR MAYOR COUNTING ON A BIG BIDEN WIN IN MIAMI-DADE
A former lawyer and non-profit executive, Levine Cava, 65, campaigned with unprecedented financial and logistical backing of the Democratic Party and ran as a champion of progressive causes. She defied efforts by Bovo to cast her as a socialist at risk of turning Miami into “another Portland,” and implemented a campaign strategy that rested on sharing a deluge of Democratic votes cast in a majority blue county.
“It means a revolution in Dade County politics,” said Dario Moreno, the Miami pollster who worked for Gimenez’s 2016 reelection campaign against fellow Republican Raquel Regalado. “A shift of eras.”
Along with the first female chief administrator for Florida’s largest local government, Levine Cava becomes Miami-Dade’s first Jewish mayor. The grandmother of two represents Pinecrest, Palmetto Bay and other suburban and rural areas as the county’s District 8 commissioner. With two years left on her final term, Levine Cava resigned her seat effective Nov. 16, the day before the new mayor is sworn into office.
Bovo joined his Election Night party about 30 minutes after Levine Cava spoke, and addressed a crowd gathered before a bandstand set up outside campaign headquarters in Westchester. Standing alongside two longtime Republican allies from Miami, U.S. Sen Marco Rubio and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñéz, Bovo delivered his concession speech in Spanish and then English, saying he called Levine Cava with his congratulations.
Bovo drew loud applause when he noted he had lost, but Trump would win Florida. And he told his supporters their efforts helped fuel a strong night for Republicans across Miami-Dade.
“While we’re not victorious there are many who are going to receive the fruits of your hard work,” he said. .His voice caught once, recalling the work his volunteers put in on Election Day even as the Democratic advantage in early and mail-in voting had left him even more the underdog. “Regardless of what was reported, you still were fighting,” he said.
Levine Cava inherits a county government on an unprecedented crisis footing to combat the coronavirus pandemic, largely through a series of emergency orders issued by Gimenez that will now fall to the next mayor to extend, modify or quash. Those measures include a midnight curfew, mandated mask wearing in most public areas, a suspension of transit fares, and a freezing of county police serving the papers needed to evict residential tenants.
While Bovo opposed the curfew and urged Gimenez to keep restaurant dining rooms open during the summer COVID-19 surge, Levine Cava criticized the two-term mayor for lifting restrictions too soon and not moving quickly enough to establish a contact-tracing program and promote isolation for people with the disease.
A native New Yorker like Bovo, she moved to Miami after earning a psychology degree from Yale and joint degrees in law and social work from Columbia University. Levine Cava spoke serviceable Spanish in debates against Bovo, a former Hialeah city council member who speaks fluent Spanish.
Her campaign strategy hinged on uniting Democrats around her in a county where 58% of the voters are Hispanic.
She campaigned on an agenda that emphasized action on climate change, a more active county government on the social-services front and a more active COVID response than the Gimenez administration’s. With the mayoral contest overlapping with the high turnout of a presidential election, the landscape gave Levine Cava the partisan advantage. Democrats account for 41% of the county’s voters, and Republicans just 27%.
DEMOCRATS HELPED RUN LEVINE CAVA CAMPAIGN EFFORTS
The Democratic Party established a “coordinated campaign” with Levine Cava’s, an effort that provided canvassers and office space across the county. “We’re sharing field staff, we’re sharing digital” said Darnell Roberts, deputy field director for the party-funded coordinated campaign. “It’s never happened on the county level.”
Levine Cava and Bovo landed on the fall runoff ballot for mayor after securing the top two slots in the non-partisan summer primary. Bovo won a narrow first place as the only elected Republican in the six-person contest. Levine Cava finished well ahead of the other two well-known contenders: former mayor Alex Penelas, a Democrat, and fellow commissioner Xavier Suarez, an independent.
Penelas sat out the fall campaign, and Suarez joined fellow candidates Monique Nicole Barley and Ludmilla Domond in backing Bovo.
AN ELECTION BETWEEN LIBERAL AND CONSERVATIVE COMMISSIONERS
Stephen Clark was the last county mayor who wasn’t also Cuban American, presiding over what was then still called Dade County. Clark lost the job in 1992 when a federal judge ordered a new system of county government allowing for more equitable representation of Black and Hispanic residents. Penelas became the county’s first Cuban American mayor four years later, followed by two others: Carlos Alvarez and Gimenez.
The runoff set up a contest between commissioners who occupied the liberal and conservative wing of the 13-seat commission. Bovo won the backing of police unions, and voted against reviving the county’s police oversight board in the wake of summer demonstrations tied to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Levine Cava backed the legislation, which passed. She was on the majority when Miami-Dade commissioners passed protections for transgender residents, and on the losing side on votes approving the American Dream Miami mega-mall and the 836 extension into West Kendall.
She also opposed the 2016 legislation Bovo sponsored that legalized Uber and Lyft, a law the taxicab industry argued gave ride-hailing companies unfair advantages. It was a loss to the taxicab industry that Salmon Cennod hasn’t forgotten. The 66-year-old taxi driver was offering free rides Sunday to early-voting sites for people contacted by the Unite Here union, part of the labor coalition supporting Levine Cava.
“Daniella is the one who stuck with us the whole time,” Cennod said after helping two people into the back of vehicle outside the North Miami library.
Levine Cava assumes office at a time of historic churn in county government. While mayors have been held to a pair of consecutive terms since the modern post was created in 1996, voters created the same eight-year cap for commissioners in 2012.
Forced exits arrived this year for five incumbents, including Bovo, who has held the District 13 seat since winning a special election for it in 2011. Add in Levine Cava’s soon-to-be vacant seat, and the board will have at least six new commissioners along with a new mayor.
Levine Cava won her seat by unseating one of the board’s most conservative members at the time, Lynda Bell.
Though she was known as Daniella Levine professionally, she used her married name for the campaign and moved into District 8 to qualify for the race. The county’s Democratic Party helped organize for Levine Cava and gave her money, direct partisan support that was remarkable at the time for a county race. It was a prelude to her 2020 victory, since Bell was a Republican representing a district with a plurality of Democratic voters.
The commission was Levine Cava’s first elected office, but she was a familiar face in County Hall for her work on behalf of the non-profit she formed in 1995 to advocate for low-income residents, Catalyst Miami. Before that, she worked in state government as a child-advocacy lawyer, including running the county’s foster-child program after Hurricane Andrew.
She moved to Miami in the 1980s to join her future husband, Robert, then a young doctor working in his father’s practice. They have two adult children.
LEVINE CAVA’S TOP DONOR WAS HILLARY CLINTON’S TOP DONOR
A member of a wealthy New York family, one of Levine Cava’s top donors was her mother, Lois. More than $1 million came from Hillary Clinton’s top donor in 2016, Fort Lauderdale hedge fund mogul Donald Sussman. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $500,000 to Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party for turnout efforts, a record donation that boosted Levine Cava’s get-out-the-vote resources as well.
“I’ve been doing this since 2004,” said Christian Ulvert, the Levine Cava campaign manager who also ran both of her commission races. “The level of coordination launched by the Democratic Party has never been seen. By tomorrow, we’ll probably have done 250,00 door knocks.”
With party dollars and staff so invested in a non-partisan race, the Levine Cava campaign drew protests from Bovo that she was bringing Washington division into a contest that should be about local issues.“ Joe Biden won’t get your garbage picked up,” Bovo said at one campaign stop.
Annette Taddeo, a Democratic Florida state senator who campaigned with Levine Cava, argued a county candidate aligning with a political party lets voters make more informed choices.
“I think voters want to know what our values are,” she said. “The values of the Democratic Party are the values of a lot of voters.”
She spoke at a morning event at Levine Cava’s polling place near the mayoral candidate’s Palmetto Bay home. Women dressed in suffragette white stood behind her, a rally organized by Ruth’s List, a fundraising organization that backs Democratic women running for office. Speaking at a lectern with a Biden/Harris placard under her own, Levine Cava noted the cooler temperatures that greeted voters on Election Day.
“I brought you the winds of change today,” she said. “Isn’t it a glorious day?”